Like so many British Columbians, I watched Dr. Henry every night on TV through March and April while Covid-19 case numbers rose and outbreaks were reported in care homes throughout the Lower Mainland.
And like so many of us, I was impressed by her calm demeanor in the face of so many unknowns. Every press conference left me feeling as if the province was in capable hands.
Fast forward to September, we’ve all seen the TV ads showing us how safe our kids will be in school and watched Dr. Henry and Minister Fleming assure us they had a solid plan. I believed that right up until I saw that plan in action.
As far as I know, the Caulfeild outbreak was the first instance on the North Shore of all parents in a school receiving a notice that there had been a positive Covid-19 test. It was a “test of the system,” so to speak.
On Thursday, September 24, parents received a letter from the school advising us that an entire class of grade two students (Division 12) had been asked to self-isolate.
This wasn’t surprising or alarming to me in any way. I think we all knew there would be cases in schools and we trusted that the health authorities had systems in place to slow the spread (at least I did). We learned quickly that the system is flawed.
Division 12 parents were asked to keep their seven-year-olds isolated from the rest of the family and to send their other children to school as usual. Fortunately, those parents realized that this did not make any sense. The exposure dates were September 16, 17, 18 and 21 so if their seven-year-olds had been exposed, those kids’ siblings had potentially been exposed as well.
Collectively, the majority of those parents decided to keep all of their kids at home. Friday was a professional development day anyways, which made this easier for everyone.
By Sunday night, a 14-year-old sibling of one of the isolating students had tested positive for Covid-19. Had there not been a professional development day and had her parents followed the instructions of VCH she would have been in school Friday interacting as usual with her classmates.
Contact tracing was performed by VCH and late Tuesday morning the students at Rockridge Secondary who were deemed to be close contacts were asked to self-isolate for two weeks. These students had been in school with their peers for nearly two full days by this point.
By the time the outbreak leveled off from that division 12 class, there had been eight children, five parents, two siblings and two grandparents infected. One child spent four nights in hospital with complications from Covid-19, a terrifying ordeal for that entire family.
So what did we learn about the process? I believe we learned that it is flawed in two ways.
1) If a child who is deemed a close contact has siblings, those siblings need to be deemed close contacts as well. I understand that generally “contacts of contacts” are considered low risk, but this most likely applies to adults and not to children. Children interact much more closely and physically than adults do.
2) Cohorts should be directed to self-isolate immediately after a student tests positive. The cohort should not be in school while contact tracing is performed. The speed of contact tracing depends on a number of time-consuming factors: how quickly VCH contacts a person who has tested positive, how much information the patient has about the people they have been in contact with and how long it takes to contact those people. This is currently taking at least 36 hours and that amount of time will only increase as case numbers build. In the meantime, students who have been exposed remain in school and risk spreading the virus.
The Caulfeild outbreak (don’t even get me started on the term “cluster”) could have been much worse if not for the fact that a group of pro-active parents started communicating right away and formed their own plan that made more sense than the one they were given. These two changes to the process would limit the risk of transmission in schools and keep our kids and our teachers safer.
Ultimately, these changes will help to keep our kids exactly where we all want them to be, in school.
An accidental activist, Coralynn Gehl is the founder of protectbckids.org